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Reprieve for Zimbabweans facing threat of deportation and loss of jobs

Home Affairs suddenly withdraws its directive requiring those with Zimbabwean Exemption Permits to apply for ‘mainstream’ visas.
The Department of Home Affairs has had a change of heart. Image: Moneyweb

Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans in SA under so-called Zimbabwean Exemption Permits (ZEPs) were granted a reprieve on Monday when the Department of Home Affairs unexpectedly withdrew the directive it issued last month requiring them to apply for what it called “mainstream” visas – though the directive did not explain what these were.

The Home Affairs directive issued on November 29 gave permit holders until December 31 to apply for alternative visas – an impossibility given the six weeks it takes to get the required clearance certificate from both SA and Zimbabwean police.

Read: Zimbabweans head to court over government’s decision not to renew immigration permits

This would require visa applicants to return to Zimbabwe and be faced with not being allowed to return to SA after the Christmas break.

The 10-day quarantine period in force in Zimbabwe would have prevented permit holders from obtaining police clearance before the expiry of the ZEP at the end of December.

News of the change of heart by Home Affairs comes just as the ZEP Holders Association and non-profit organisation African Amity brought an urgent application before the High Court in Johannesburg challenging the decision not to renew the permits.

Court case will go ahead

Advocate Simba Chitando, who is representing the applicants, says the court case will go ahead on Tuesday.

“The oppressive directive [from Home Affairs] has been withdrawn, a day before court, which is a victory, but we are still going to go to court to decide how the main application will proceed. I would like to thank the legal team I’m leading for their hard work and the ZEP leaders for their confidence in such an important case. There is still a lot of work to be done.

“We will continue until ZEP holders get permanent residence permits.”

In October, the ZEP Holders Association brought an application before the Gauteng High Court to force Home Affairs to issue them with SA ID documents and declare them permanent residents.

Read: Zimbabweans ask Gauteng High Court to declare them permanent residents

Home Affairs then issued a directive demanding that ZEP holders apply for alternative visas, failing which they stood to lose their jobs and be deported.

This plan was condemned by Lawyers for Human Rights for its potential to cause a humanitarian crisis.

Under the directive issued by Home Affairs, companies, employers, learning institutions and banks were instructed to discontinue services to those in possession of a ZEP expiring on December 31 unless they submit proof of their application for a “mainstream” visa.

What is a ‘mainstream’ visa?

The court case now underway questions what is meant by a “mainstream” visa, which is nowhere defined by the department.

In an affidavit before the court, Emma Dimairho, deposing for African Amity, says the requirement by Home Affairs for ZEP holders to apply for alternative visas was not only impossible to meet, but was “unreasonable, unfair, cruel and leaves thousands of ZEP holders in jeopardy of losing their jobs” as well as financial services.

The decision by Home Affairs will cause irreparable harm unless the court intervenes on an urgent basis, says the court application.

The ZEPs and their predecessors were put in place more than a decade ago to regularise the status of Zimbabweans forced out of the country due to economic and political turmoil prior to 2009.

Tensions

Zimbabwe has historically been one of SA’s closest allies, though the relationship is reportedly under strain, in part because of political pressure on the ANC from parties such as ActionSA to address illegal immigration, and the lack of response by the government to openly xenophobic groups calling for the expulsion of Zimbabwean drivers employed in SA.

Read: Foreign truck drivers attacked under cover of looting, demand compensation from SA

There is a fear that this could lead to a soft trade war between SA and Zimbabwe, which is a key artery for the distribution of goods throughout the southern Africa region.

Zimbabwe could apply pressure on SA by delaying trucks bearing SA number plates, and applying higher tariffs on certain key goods from SA.

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